SF Gate: Gory revelations stun Iraqis/Hussein clique kept news of its crimes from most citizens

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Mon Jun 02 2003 - 02:22:58 EDT

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Sunday, June 1, 2003 (SF Chronicle)
Gory revelations stun Iraqis/Hussein clique kept news of its crimes
from most citizens
Anna Badkhen, Chronicle Staff Writer

    Baghdad -- Like so many Iraqis these days, Chedha al Awsi feels betrayed
and confused.
    On a computer screen before her, poorly recorded footage shows half a
dozen laughing soldiers of Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard as they
beat and kick civilian men kneeling on the ground, their hands bound
behind their backs.
    There is a glitch in the recording, then the screen shows soldiers tying
dynamite to the chests of their prisoners and blowing them up, one by one.
Pieces of human flesh and bone fly in all directions. Al Awsi jolts in her
seat, her face distorted by a grimace of pain.
    For much of the rest of the world, the gruesome crimes of Hussein's rule
are familiar, if tragic, knowledge. But for al Awsi and for millions of
her fellow citizens, they are shocking news.
    "You just suddenly realize that you didn't know what was happening. I feel
deceived," said al Awsi, a 31-year-old office manager at a private trading
company, her eyes glued to the computer screen.
    After Hussein's Baath Party seized power in 1968, it executed hundreds of
thousands of Iraqis and destined many more to the hell of Hussein's
torture chambers. But criticizing the president and his party was a crime
punishable by death. The combination of Hussein's brutal security police
and his totalitarian propaganda machine sufficiently silenced any dissent
from reaching ordinary people.
    "It's very important now that people come to grips with Iraqi history,
with their own history," said Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, the
New York- based advocacy group. "It is true that a lot of Iraqis believed
the propaganda of this government. It's easy to deny the past. To build
false local histories of what happened."
    While they had a vague idea about Hussein's despotism and quietly hated
his rule for its authoritarian repression, many people were unaware of the
scale of his atrocities -- especially if, as in al Awsi's case, none of
their relatives were victimized.
    "Halabja?" said al Awsi's friend, Thanaa al Taee, 34, an arts critic and a
ceramics teacher who is now completing her fourth master's degree. Al Taee
struggled to remember what she has heard about the notorious site of a
1988 chemical attack on the Iraqi Kurds, which killed about 5,000 people.
When she finally replies, there is a note of uncertainty in her voice.
    "I've heard of it, but I'm not sure," she said. "I think -- did Saddam
kill some people there?"
    When the Baath Party rule collapsed in Iraq six weeks ago, the magnitude
of Hussein's crimes came crashing down in an avalanche of gruesome
    In a sign of the changing times, street vendors sell for $3 apiece bootleg
CD-ROMs featuring video recordings of Hussein's executions of his
political opponents and relatives fallen from grace. Iraqi television --
only sporadically available because of the irregular electricity supply --
broadcasts reports from mass graves that are being exhumed across the
country's fertile marshes, rolling mountains and arid deserts.
    Newspapers that have sprung up since the fall of Hussein's regime print
daily accounts of past atrocities. "The dictator had an ugly voice to
conceal the truth. You have been fooled by his media and by his slogans.
Wake up and see his crimes," read an opinion piece in Wednesday's Al Adala
    "It is a very big shock. People will suffer from this shock for a very
long time," said Mazin Ramadhani, professor of political science at
Baghdad's al Nahrein University.
    The revelations are bound to continue. Volunteers have dug up crumbling
remains of about 10,000 people in mass graves across southern Iraq, said
Bouckaert, of Human Rights Watch. "On an average day we see six or seven
mass graves. New ones," said Bouckaert, who has been working in Iraq for
more than a month.
    Because of lack of record-keeping, it is difficult to estimate the number
of victims who have been exhumed, he noted. Most of the bones belong to
men, women and children executed in Hussein's effort to crush a Shiite
Muslim rebellion in 1991.
    Bouckaert estimates that about 290,000 people have disappeared in Iraq
throughout Hussein's rule.
    "There has to be accurate documentation so that our grandchildren, Iraqi
grandchildren, can read about what happened," Bouckaert said.
    At the crowded office of the Committee for Free Prisoners, an Iraqi
grassroots organization that is trying to collect information about the
victims of Hussein's political repression, files documenting thousands of
lives are piled high on the tiled floors and desks. Dozens of men pore
over archives of the feared Mukhabarat security police, many of them
marked "top secret."
    Surrounded by a crowd of men and women, a volunteer stands on a desk,
reading out names from small pieces of paper he's holding in his hand.
    One woman, a college professor looking for records of her brother, who
disappeared in 1991, is on her way out the door. Suddenly she leans
against a wall, her back to the world, her forehead resting on her
forearm, and begins to weep silently.
    "It is difficult, maybe impossible for some people to understand the scale
of the atrocities. Some people knew nothing about it," said Ibrahim al
Idrisi, the founder of the committee. "It's our job to show people just
how bad the regime was. The most important thing in Iraq right now is to
inform the people here how we really lived in those three decades."
    But the information is often distorted, exaggerated or simply too
overwhelming to comprehend.
    For example, the Committee for Free Prisoners claims it has execution
records of 8 million Iraqis -- an incredible number for a country with a
total population of about 22 million.
    Najim Aboud, a guard at the al Mohsin Mosque, where Hussein's security
police slaughtered hundreds of worshipers during a Friday prayer service,
in an effort to thwart a Shiite uprising in 1999, says he knows for a fact
that Hussein liked to hang two men every Wednesday.
    And al Awsi has heard a theory, which she admits she somewhat believes,
that Hussein was an agent of the CIA -- "because why would a true Iraqi
want to kill his own people?"
    Looking out at the arches and domes of Baghdad's exquisite skyline from
the rooftop of Qasr al Musannat, the 12th century palace of Abbasid Caliph
Al Nasir Lidin Illah, al Awsi struggled to make sense of it all. In her
head, she is trying to piece together her own version of the recent
history of Iraq, the long-suffering country she loves so much.
    "There are so many blank spots," she said, listening to sporadic bursts of
gunfire on the other side of the Tigris River. "I don't know so much of
what happened."

    E-mail Anna Badkhen at abadkhen@sfchronicle.com.
Copyright 2003 SF Chronicle

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